By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 5, 2007
The acting chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission yesterday sided with business groups in opposing a Senate proposal that would make it easier for the agency to disclose potential product hazards.
Consumer advocates have long sought to change a provision of the Consumer Product Safety Act that they say prevents the agency from alerting the public about dangerous products.
But the acting chairwoman of the CPSC, Nancy A. Nord, said amending the law would be "counterproductive" because it would discourage companies from coming forward with problems.
Nord's position sparked criticism from one of her predecessors. "She thinks it's the industry product safety commission," said Ann Brown, CPSC chairman under President Bill Clinton. The current law "stands in the way of consumers getting prompt information, and it should be amended and changed."
Nord made her remarks at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on a bill to overhaul the agency. Introduced by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who chairs the consumer products subcommittee, it was drafted in response to this summer's recalls of millions of Chinese-made toys that focused attention on the CPSC's outdated testing facility -- a former Nike missile test site in Gaithersburg -- and shrinking staff. The agency has lost 15 percent of its workforce since 2004 and employs one full-time toy tester.
"Let's face it, our consumer product safety system is busted and in need of major reform," Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said.
"I don't expect this overburdened agency to protect us," Pryor said.
His bill would increase the agency's budget to $117 million from $62 million over five years and set aside $20 million to upgrade the testing facility. It seeks to strengthen the agency's enforcement powers by raising the cap on civil penalties from $1.83 million to $100 million and giving the agency more control over how recalls are conducted.
The bill would also ban lead from children's products, require children's products to be independently tested and make it illegal to sell a recalled product.
Retailers, manufacturers and consumer groups have called for more resources for the CPSC, and the toy industry last month asked Congress to require independent testing of toys. But the consensus on how to improve product safety ends there.
One of the most contentious provisions in Pryor's bill would let the CPSC disclose information about a potential product hazard if there is an imminent or substantial product hazard or if the agency believes a company has violated the Consumer Product Safety Act. Currently, manufacturers have to approve information the agency releases about their products and can challenge any disclosures in court.
Nord said if the agency cannot assure manufacturers of confidentiality, companies will be less likely to report problems, even though they are obligated to by law. "It will make it more difficult to obtain the useful information we need to assess risks," Nord told lawmakers.
Manufacturers agree with Nord. "A huge barrier would be placed in the way of manufacturer and retailer cooperation with the commission," said Joseph McGuire, president of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.
Manufacturers also fear that without proper vetting, the CPSC could release inaccurate or misleading information, said McGuire, who was appearing on behalf of the National Association of Manufacturers. He blamed delays in releasing information to the public on the agency's outdated technology. "If their processes aren't improved, the problem won't improve," he said.
Nord and McGuire also took issue with raising the civil-penalty cap to $100 million. The agency seeks to impose civil penalties when companies fail to report defects in a timely manner or when they violate safety standards.
Nord said setting the limit for civil penalties too high would prompt companies, "out of an abundance of caution," to "overwhelm" the agency with consumer complaints, straining staff resources.
Manufacturers objected to the cap for different reasons, arguing that with so much money at stake, companies would be more likely to assume a "defensive posture."
"The real penalty to companies that violate standards or make defective products is the cost of the recall and the damage to their reputation, not the penalties," McGuire said.
Witnesses from the Consumer Federation of America and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group endorsed the legislation and called the changes long overdue.
Pryor urged all sides to make their case. "Now is the time," he said.